Conference Preview: Mountain West

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Here at HoopsHD, we generally group conferences into one of two categories.  The first is the “major conferences” which are regular multi-bid leagues, while the second is considered to be “Under the Radar.”  The Under the Radar conferences are ones that, in most years, are probably only going to put their automatic bid winner into the NCAA Tournament.  The Mountain West conference has been part of the former group and should remain so through this season, but after its performance last year, we have seriously questioned which group it actually belongs in.  Only automatic bid winner Fresno State got an invite to the Big Dance, where they were a 14 seed and lost by double-digits to Utah in the Round of 64.  Perhaps the only redeeming grace for the conference came in other postseason events, as San Diego State advanced to the semifinals of the NIT and Nevada cut down the nets as champions of the CBI.

This season, San Diego State again appears poised to be at or near the top of the league, as Steve Fisher’s squad is always one of the toughest teams in the country defensively.  However, the preseason choice is a bit of a surprise, as Nevada, despite losing three of their top scorers from last season, appears to have enough weapons to challenge and even claim the conference title.  The Wolfpack are clearly a team on the rise under head coach Eric Musselman.  We also expect big things from them on the recruiting trail, as Musselman has hired Dave Rice as an assistant coach.  Rice brought in some amazing recruiting classes at UNLV the past few years, though his failure to turn that talent into on-court wins led to his dismissal this past offseason.  Beyond San Diego State and Nevada, New Mexico and Fresno State should both be in the running for postseason bids, although likely not of the NCAA kind.  Finally, keep an eye on dark horse pick Air Force, a team with a ton of veterans that could surprise a lot of people.

Predicted Order of Finish

1. Nevada – Despite losing three of their top scorers, the Wolf Pack do bring back Cameron Oliver, who should be on the short list of conference Player of the Year candidates after averaging close to a double-double last season (13.4 ppg, 9.1 rpg).  D.J. Fenner also averaged over 13 points per game last year and the coaching staff has brought in a group of talented transfers and freshmen that should help immediately.  For all the criticism that Dave Rice received as head coach in Vegas, he absolutely is able to recruit and his addition to the Eric Musselman’s coaching staff should pay dividends this year and in the future.

2. San Diego State – The Aztecs should be suffocating on defense once again, but they will need to find a way to put the ball through the hoop.  Guards Trey Kell and Jeremy Hemsley will need to lead the way in backcourt scoring, while Malik Pope could be poised for a breakout year down low.

3. New Mexico – The inside-outside combination of Elijah Brown and Tim Williams will make the Lobos tough to beat and keep them in contention, but the team needs to show vast improvements defensively if they want to seriously contend for an NCAA bid.

4. Air Force – This may be a bit of a wild pick this high in the standings, but the Falcons return a veteran and experienced lineup led by Hayden Graham and a healthy Trevor Lyons.  A lack of size will be their biggest challenge, but in a conference that only put one team in the NCAA Tournament and three teams in the postseason last year, there is a chance for the team from Colorado Springs to make some noise.

5. Fresno State – The Bulldogs have some strong pieces, led by forwards Karachi Edo and Cullen Russo, plus Colorado transfer Jaron Hopkins at guard.  Unfortunately, this probably won’t be enough to make up for the offseason losses, most notably conference Player of the Year Marvelle Harris.

6. Utah State – Jalen Moore will be a standout again at the swing position, but the Aggies probably don’t have enough other pieces around him to be a serious threat for the top of the league.

7. Wyoming – Josh Adams and his 24.2 points per game are gone, but the majority of the remaining players return and Jason McManamen has a chance to be the Cowboys’ next star.

8. Boise State – This looks like a rebuilding year in Boise, with James Webb III, Anthony Drmic and Mikey Thompson all gone.  However, Nick Duncan is a great shooter and the Broncos have a ton of size down low, so we won’t be too surprised if they finish higher than this.

9. Colorado State – The Rams lost a lot of scoring talent from a middle-of-the-pack team.  Gian Clavell is healthy and big man Emmanuel Omogbo should help, but don’t expect any serious improvement from last season’s 18-16 record.

10. UNLV – Only three scholarship players return from last season, so new head coach Marvin Menzies will need to cobble together a rotation filled with freshman, junior college transfers and graduate transfers.

11. San Jose State – Head coach Dave Wojcik has things slowly moving in the right direction here, but there is still a long way to go for the Spartans whose four conference wins last season was their most in five years.

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